Deus Ex Hominibus:Science, Theology, and Masculinity

March 8, 1998

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars. By Margaret Wertheim, Times Books (Division of Random House), New York, 1995, 279 pages, $23.00, (Paperback: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1997, 297 pages, $13.95).

God---always---and feminism---in the past two centuries---have been such controversial subjects that whatever I say in this review, I will have succeeded in irritating a fraction of my readers. That being the case, I might just as well plough right ahead and say what I want to say.

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian science writer who holds bachelor's degrees both in physics and in mathematics. She writes books and magazine articles, and has done prize-winning radio and television work relating to the mathematical education of women. Writing popular philosophy as Will Durant did years ago, and infusing a certain sensationalism into her presentation, Wertheim does the history of mathematics a service by providing a readable introduction to the relationship between mathematics and theology. Taken on a purely philosophical level, this relationship seems harmless enough, even totally ignorable. Who cares about philosophy? Contemporary scientists rarely philosophize consciously.

Wertheim tells us that after a point she couldn't stand the heat in the mathematical and physics kitchen and got out and into writing and the media:

"One of the reasons more women do not go into physics is that they find the present culture of this science and its almost antihuman focus, deeply alienating. . . . After six years of studying physics and math at university, I realized that much as I loved the science itself, I could not continue to operate within such an intellectual environment" (page 15).

Of course, many men also get out for a variety of reasons. They may love the subject but, depending on what decade it is, may not be able to make a living with it. Those who are able to remain and are displeased by the thrust of applications often assuage their misgivings by restricting their personal research to material they consider to be absolutely inapplicable.

The bottom line of this book is that if more women were in mathematics and science (particularly in physics), then they would create "an environment in which one could pursue the quest for mathematical relationships in the world around us, but within a more human ethos. . . . The issue is not that physics is done by men, but rather the kind of men who have tended to dominate it. . . . Mathematical Man's problem is neither his math nor his maleness per se, but rather the pseudoreligious ideals and self-image with which he so easily becomes obsessed" (page 15).

Toward the end of the book, Wertheim turns to the current re-emergence of God in the pages of physics popularizations (a field from which He had been largely excluded from the time of the 18th-century French Enlightenment). She asserts that this long-time absence is due to the exclusion of women from the field and she relates it, perhaps metaphorically, to the exclusion of women from the religious priesthood. "The time has come," she concludes, "for a mathematical based science envisioned and practiced equally by both sexes" (page 252).

Despite these harsh misanthropic sentiments (anthropos: man), I would rate the author as a mild to medium feminist and one who writes a fair amount that I agree with. I can certainly agree that male scientists and engineers have contributed to a messed up world; that male mathematicians, mathematizing to a fare-thee-well everything in sight, from the flight of the cannonball to foreign policy in crisis situations, have probably added chaos and instability as much as they have introduced order. I agree that the recent re-emergence of TOEs (Theories of Everything) is to be deplored as an act of intellectual hubris, allied to monotheism, and I would hold it to be a sign of exhaustion rather than of vigor.

I wonder, though, whether the addition of the feminine element will, in the long run, provide the necessary balance. Many formerly male occupations are now open to women. There is resistance and hassle to be sure; the "glass ceiling" is undoubtedly there in the business world, and the battle over women in the ministry has been fought with rancor in the glare of full publicity. Nonetheless, the numbers of women--with or without Affirmative Action--who earn their bread by delivering mail, tending bar, directing movies, proving theorems, or sitting on the Supreme Court has increased enormously in my lifetime.

Has it made a difference? Of course, but in what way? Perhaps a sociometrist could invent a "quality of living index" and plot it against the percentage of women whose fingers are on the power buttons of civilization. If the increasing openness to women has made a difference (or if it will) (page 237), then an argument has been made for the existence of a special feminine quality. But on just the previous page, Wertheim has utterly rejected the classical dichotomy wherein men have spiritual natures and women material natures. Well, there is no real contradiction in this. Although you may read about this particular split in Aristotle, there are certainly more dichotomies between men and women than were ever dreamed of in that particular man's philosophy.

With the moral battle over, in the "advanced" countries at least, but with the war hardly won, Wertheim goes on to express some ideas that I had never come across within the feminist context and that make the book unique.

First, though, a brief summary of the book's contents. There can be found in Pythagoras' Trousers, often intertwined:

  1. A recounting of past treatment of women by male intellectuals and scientists. Polemical material on male dominance and misogyny.

  2. Biographical sketches of women scientists. Among them: Hypatia (c. 400), Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1749), Marie Curie (1867-1934), Lise Meitner (1878-1968), Emmy Noether (1882-1935), Sophie Kowalewski (1850-1891), Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972), Laura Bassi (1711-1778), Maria Agnesi (1718-1799). There are brief references to many I'd not heard of, and omitted (inevitably) are numerous women mathematicians of distinction with whom I've worked personally or known about.
  3. A plea for more women in science.

    Now all this material has been well chewed over in the literature. There are even data bases and Web sites for women in mathematics and the sciences. Things that have not been discussed sufficiently elsewhere include:

  4. The relationship between science and theology over the past 2500 years.

  5. The displacement of religion by science. (Science as revelation and salvation.)
  6. The current preoccupation with God on the part of some prominent physicists. (This is rather less the case among mathematicians.)
  7. An interpretation of (6) along feminist lines.

*****

I do not believe that any book on the history of mathematics, written in the past two centuries, contains a thoroughgoing exposition of the centuries-old relationship between mathematics and theology. I've asked around, and my historical mavens agree.*

This neglect---intensified by the Enlightenment, probably in the name of purity---is an act of intellectual cleansing that parallels the many acts of iconoclastic destruction that have overtaken civilization at various times and places. Why has it occurred? Numerous reasons have been suggested:

The truth of the interplay between science/mathematics and theology is other than what might be inferred from the silence of history books. Until the Enlightenment, science and mathematics were carried out within a civilization of strong religious beliefs and practices. Questions of existence (ontology), meaning (epistemology), determinism, infinity, continuity, randomness, formalism, justification are as pertinent to theology as they are to mathematics, and the naive demand on the part of mathematical historians, nursed solely on Euclidean milk, that the cross-fertilization be put in evidence as a sequence of theorems misses the point.

Nor, in fact, was the Enlightenment able completely to exorcise God from mathematics and physics. We all know the story of Niels Bohr, who, impatient with Einstein's theological pronouncements, was led to rebuke him: "Albert, don't tell the dear Lord what he should be doing."

To understand better the post-Enlightenment persistence of the theological impulse, consider the remarkable assessment written by the famous biostatistician Karl Pearson (1857-1936):

"It is impossible to understand a man's work unless you understand something of his environment. And his environment means the state of affairs, social and political, of his own age. You might think it possible to write a history of the 19th Century and not touch theology or politics. I gravely doubt whether you could come down to its actual foundations without thinking of Clifford, and du Bois-Reymond and Huxley from the standpoint of theology and politics. What more removed from those fields than the subject of differential equations? Yet, you would not grasp the work of de Saint Venant or Boussinesq unless you realized that they viewed singular solutions as the great solution of the problem of Free Will; and I hold a letter of Clerk Maxwell in which he states that their work on singular solutions is epoch making on this very account." (From The History of Statistics in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Against a Changing Background of Intellectual, Scientific and Religious Thought. Lectures, 1921-1933.)

God has returned to the stage from the wings, and science, says Wertheim, is now an overtly religious enterprise. There is a whole industry of popular and semi-popular books on science that invoke theological terminology: The God Particle of Leon Lederman; Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality, and numerous others. Why this turnaround? From whence comes the necessity for the reintroduction? Is it that God is once again good for sales, and that clever literary agents and publishers, with their noses in the winds sensing this, urge their authors to deisticize their mathematical descriptions?

Or is it that, as Wertheim claims, men (not women) write the scientific agenda and that science and technology, even while they produce a cornucopia of goodies, have had their conceptual aspects abstracted and cleansed of all human connections by high priests (men) operating within the Cathedral of Science and following an absurd Platonist vision? In so doing, they have failed to satisfy deep human spiritual needs.

I think that while this explanation for the re-emergence of God is thin, there is enough in it to warrant mulling over.

We can also look at the matter in another way: from the point of view of utilitarianism or instrumentalism. What do the activities of mathematics, pure or applied, or of theoretical physics, do to or for people? Now such topics as astrology, numerology, kabbalah, hermetic magic, alchemy have mathematical components, often trivial, often deep. These are topics in which the ancestry of mathematics and science must be located. Despite today's repugnance and rejection of them (cf. the recent flap about computer searches of the Bible for hidden messages), they must not be written off as nonapplications. They have had human and social consequences, even as theories of exterior ballistics or the proposed construction of a supercollider has had consequences. History should not separate out an officially approved subset and ignore the rest. It should make value judgments across the board. Even the world of "politically correct" applied mathematics is often judged to be strewn with failed or inadequate or socially deleterious models of all kinds.

I think, as Wertheim does, that the enormities to which the science/theology combination has given and is still giving rise might possibly be lessened by a larger fraction of women in the field. Would this mean, for example, that with greater participation by women, the theological impulse will recede? Would it point to the existence of a unique feminine perception of and sensibility to the world? This last is an issue on which feminists themselves have not been able to agree.

*There are discussions of certain limited aspects, in, for example, Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1986; Joan Richards, "God, Truth and Mathematics in 19th Century England," in The Invention of Physical Science, Mary J. Nye et al., eds., Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1992. I have heard that Wertheim intends to write such a book.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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